It is, perhaps, a depressing aspect of Peter Lorre’s brilliance that his performance in M was used by the Nazis as evidence of the duplicity of the Jews. It is true that the man born László Löwenstein was a Hungarian Jew by birth. However, what he was not was a serial killer of children, a man who could not stop himself from murdering the children who he lured to himself for the express purpose of their deaths. He was instead a brilliant actor, one of the most talented men of his generation, who was nonetheless mostly typecast as a weaselly villain.
Lorre is probably one of the most parodied actors in film history. His voice and persona are so distinctive that he is this year’s entry in “I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Covered Them Yet” in the Halloween division. Not to mention, of course, that I adore him and will talk for hours about his actual range, as opposed to what he was asked to do. What was most often ignored by people attempting to cast him in things was his great sense of humour, mostly only shown in Arsenic and Old Lace, wherein he, as Dr. Einstein, is himself parodying the Peter Lorre role.
He was one of many European refugees—that Hungarian Jewish thing, after all. Legend has it that Goebbels himself told Lorre to escape. He is one of the many cast members of Casablanca who was bereft of their homeland because of Nazi incursion, the reason the “La Marseillaise” scene lands as hard as it does. Perhaps Lorre is being his usually weaselly caricature type in the movie; after all, that’s about half his career, his own best efforts notwithstanding. Still, he is one of many in that movie who knows that his home is taken from him so long as the Nazis are in power.
While Conseil in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was definitely weaselly, he was not a villain. He was trapped by the half-mad Captain Nemo because his employer was at least a quarter mad himself and was increasingly on Nemo’s side despite not having Nemo’s reasons for anger and bloodlust. Conseil’s primary goal is to survive, and his secondary goal is to escape, and he’ll do anything he can to further that second goal without compromising the first one.
In fact, Lorre himself was a funny guy—at Bela Lugosi’s funeral, he asked Vincent Price if they should drive a stake in the cape-clad corpse, just to be sure. He took the role of Mr. Moto despite not wanting to because he needed the money to pay the bills; he was recovering from his own morphine addiction at the time. Perhaps he was almost always a villain, a second banana, or a second banana to a villain, but he was a fine, talented actor nonetheless, and typecasting him didn’t fully hide that. It does, on the other hand, mean that I’m pretty sure my kids would know the voice even if they don’t recognize the face.